Earlier this year, I offered two free mini-courses on prospect research tools to friends and colleagues in NM and Chicago. Thirty minutes. Tell me your data hopes and dreams, and I'll share a couple time-saving hacks that I developed to cut through a list of 1,500 names (times 30 data points = 45,000 things too dang many).
The differences in attitude about this topic shocked me -- despite the fact that they had the same ballpark budget size for their organizations:
My Chicago contingent: "We wealth screen annually for our Annual Fund base and set their ratings accordingly. We do it a few times over a special campaign. We upload the data to our database so it's in the donor record and we can reference it throughout the year as needed." Those are A-student answers, my friends. Those answers optimize fundraising year over year on repeat.
My New Mexico contingent: "We don't use it because we don't actually trust it... Where does it all come from? It can't be right -- can it?"
GASP. WHEEZE. Where do I begin?
Here's the thing: We've been living in the Information Age since Alex P. Keaton carried a briefcase to high school. Email fundraising wasn't a thing until the mid-90s, but can you even imagine fundraising without it now? Without social media asks or texting? Data is BIGGER than those things combined! It's far more fundamental. It drives the underlying structure and rationale of your development program asks. It's the info to prioritize your time on relationship building. It's about understanding your donors beyond what you can gather from a couple of conversations a year and observing their taste in handbags. The results speak for themselves -- and it doesn't even have to be expensive to access when there are resources like me to run and analyze a list for you.
A few days after the mini-courses, the Santa Fe Community Foundation serendipitously reached out and said, "If you could teach anything in northern NM this year, what would it be?"
Welcome to my one-day virtual course, A Prospect Research Road Map for Beginners -- scheduled for Thursday, November 2nd.
Let's do this, NM!
Next week, Chicago will open an immersive theater production unlike anything it's ever seen, and I'm over the moon to have helped the creators make it possible.
Port of Entry is the big, bold, audacious idea actualized by the brilliant minds and hearts of Albany Park teens, Albany Park Theater Project (APTP) leadership, and Third Rail Projects of Brooklyn.
Their mission: Invite thousands of people to step inside the real-life stories of immigrants and refugees from all over the world -- replicated in a 1929 warehouse made to look and feel exactly like a real Albany Park apartment building. And then run the show for at least a year (!).
As if that isn't big enough, APTP teens are the heroes of the story writ large. It's their first-hand immigration stories that drive the play, they are the actual actors, and the entire experience from early development to closing week will help launch them into college. APTP has been doing this kind of deep youth development with exceptional care for decades -- with stunning success.
Introduced through a mutual friend, APTP's co-Executive Director David Feiner reached out in 2019. "We need to raise possibly as much as $3 million. We have $700,000 in grants so far... Is that good?" I assured him that raising $700,000 is indeed almost always very good. What they didn't have was a building site or any track record of real major gift campaign work. We spent the next three years working together on the feasibility study, securing the donation of the warehouse, honing the remaining $2.5 million funding plan, and tackling it month by month. In spite of the pandemic, everything rolled on thanks to Zoom, extraordinary donors who were willing to listen, and a truckload of trademark Chicago hustle and grit.
Port of Entry is a turning point for APTP -- they intend to work big from now on. So far it's working, as the summer block of performances is already sold out.
I can't wait to make a trip back to see it this fall. There is nothing in this world like the feeling of big, beautiful vision realized.
Concern #1: Donors might shift their focus to health-related projects.
Your Best Response: Your donor communications should explain how your organization is responding to the situation. Include details about what you’re doing to help protect the well-being of stakeholders at your organization that your donors care most about.
Your Best Response: State upfront that your organization puts your community’s health and well-being first. Then make the appeal that support now is more important than ever to ensure your organization is in a strong place when this lifts to get back to creating joy and great art.
Think about ways you might use digital events to engage your donors. A performance might not make sense, but what about a conversation with your artistic staff about how a project is developing? Could you do a virtual script reading?
Concern #3: Corporate giving is the first to contract in a down market.
Corporate donors should be a low priority now for solicitations. Put the top priority on family foundations and individuals. They’re most likely to take the long view on the markets and have some cushion. Reach out to the business partners and sponsors who you have very close, long-running relationships with. Otherwise, most corporate/business contacts will need time to see how they're impacted.
Concern #4: Older donors are totally self-isolated.
For major gift plans long in the works with individual donors, ask for the meeting when your campaign is ready, but start out by asking how they're doing first and listen. It's possible they might be willing to do a video call for a request if you've cultivated them well and recently -- and if they signaled that they were ready in the past several weeks to be asked for a big project. Be prepared if they say they need to wait a month or two for the meeting and be diligent about follow-ups.
Isolation means many major donors likely welcome your update call or email. Everyone is answering their phones right now. Reach out to your top priorities to keep the relationship warm and keep them updated on how you're managing through this.
Concern #5: It’s uncertain how long this will affect daily life.
Develop contingency plans for the efforts that really matter. Your board should have an emergency meeting if it hasn't already to plan 2-3 different scenarios. One of those should anticipate a six-month recession. How much capital do you have to get through the next months without new revenue? What can you do to stretch what you do have? Can you create new revenue streams with digital content? Are there any major restricted grants or gifts that you can talk to the donors about, asking them to loosen restrictions right now? How much would your fundraising team need to raise exactly to fill the gaps? By when? What if the fall appeal is impacted? They can't fundraise without goals and a clear picture. Larger donors will want to know.
Remember that since 1980, the US has been through five official recessions. Donors have continued to give through all of them, but with more focus on the organizations that earn their love and trust. We still saw growth in giving over those periods – but it was slower.
Concern #6: We don’t know where to cut the operating budget if we need to.
The last place to cut is where you’re still generating revenue. A strong fundraising effort needs to stay in place no matter what. Meet with your board, make sure they understand that their focus and collaboration are critical to help keep your fundraising programs strong to weather this. Can they call lapsed donors at the higher levels and ask for a renewal? Can they assist in nudging donors thinking about bigger requests? This is the time to make sure that the organization's leaders pull together.
About a year ago, a colleague recommended that I look into The Cycle, Michael Kaiser's management method for running high-performing arts organizations. At the time, I was just starting up my practice and needed to focus on other things, so I put a mental pin in it. This spring, after finishing up a house renovation and moving in, I was hungry to focus on some meaty professional development while *not* thinking about the miles of trim that I have yet to paint.
I was DELIGHTED to see that The Cycle isn't just a book now -- it's a free online course on Coursera. And WOW. It's excellent work well worth the time to watch the lectures, if not complete all the exercises.
Who's Michael Kaiser? He's the executive director that brought Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater back from the brink. And then he ran the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, for about 13 years. He started a management institute there, honing this method of focusing tightly on making great art (the easy part!), marketing institutionally, and building relationships with what he calls the "family." Guess which part is my favorite? As Kaiser acknowledges, the lessons apply to all sorts of organizations beyond arts and culture - that just happens to be his bailiwick.
The institute how lives at the University of Maryland, and has expanded its scope. I can't say enough about the quality of this course. And hooray for free!
Here are the documents from the Making the Major Gift Ask training session. Thanks again for participating. Feel free to reach out with questions.
I'm so proud to be supporting FUSION Theatre Company as it helps to lead the Arts and Culture district work happening in Downtown Albuquerque right now. This is how you use the arts to make change happen in a city -- change that builds the economy, leverages the unique cultural assets of a region, and raises the quality of life for everyone in the community. Forward!
An article in Albuquerque Business First today touts the use of LinkedIn as a free, easy relationship mapping tool to prospect for major gifts. While it’s not the worst fundraising advice I’ve ever heard (in a category of journalism that can often range from the tone deaf to the truly misleading), it is flawed. Here are a few reasons why you shouldn’t over-rely on LinkedIn for this task, especially for gifts that trustees will solicit:
So my advice – whether you have a consultant or are doing this solo – is that the quickest, most effective method is still a largely human-centered one:
Emilie, Principal and Owner